Memo to Mr. Obama: War is (always) hell

In recent days, the Obama administration has been scrambling to hand off management of our latest war- this one in Libya – to someone (anyone) else.

The message coming out of the Pentagon has been that this will be a “limited” engagement, low-risk, low-investment.  In a word:  Easy.

I’m not a pacifist.  I believe that war is an occasionally necessary tool.

But any time a politician or a general tells you that a violent conflict will be easy, or limited, or someone else’s job to finish, hide your sons and daughters under the stairs.

It was this kind of rhetoric — and not the lack of WMDs — that most infuriated me about the war in Iraq.  We were promised a surgical conflict, a made-for-TV campaign of shock and awe and toppling statues.

A decade later, we’re still sorting out the toll in lives lost, and tax dollars expended.

When confronted with the inadequacy of war planning, then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld offered that timeless self-justification:

“You go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.”

He might have added that you come home from war not with the young people you might want or wish to have at a later time, but with men and women forced to pay a terrible physical, moral and emotional price.

The suicides, the divorces, the substance abuse, the PTSD, the head trauma. We’re only beginning to understand what the last decade of perpetual war has meant to American society.

Our news media have been largely downplaying the recent revelation in a German magazine called Der Spiegel that a group of our soldiers were caught photographing themselves with the corpses of dead Afghan civilians.

Those soldiers are accused of murdering their victims in cold blood.  This from the English-language version of the article.

The suspected perpetrators are part of a group of US soldiers accused of several killings. Their court martials are expected to start soon.

The photos, the army statement said, stand “in stark contrast to the discipline, professionalism and respect that have characterized our soldiers’ performance during nearly 10 years of sustained operations.”

That training and discipline are admirable.  We know the vast majority of our soldiers at Fort Drum and our reservists from the North Country are exemplary soldiers.

But you can’t send tens of thousands of young men and women into a war zone and expect moral clarity, or simplicity, or tidy endings.

If President Barack Obama thinks this latest fight in Libya is worth risking American lives and American values to take on, he should talk about those challenges and risks bluntly and honestly.

Tags: ,

37 Comments on “Memo to Mr. Obama: War is (always) hell”

  1. Paul says:

    “If President Barack Obama thinks this latest fight in Libya is worth risking American lives and American values to take on, he should talk about those challenges and risks bluntly and honestly.”


    Brian if you think that the media have not covered a particular story who is to blame? Write a story.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  2. Pete Klein says:

    I totally agree, Brian. War is hell. That is why if you go to war you need to make certain the hell of war is far, far worse for the other side than it is for you.
    As has been said in boot camps to new recruits, “We don’t want you to die for your country. We want the other guy to die for his country.”

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  3. Bret4207 says:

    Maybe the problem isn’t the war itself but the aftermath. We knocked the Iraqi military out on a few days, same in Afghanistan. It was the follow up that is the problem. Is it “more wrong” if we go in, kick butt and leave than if we go in, kick butt and then stay to rebuild and have to deal with the resentment and guerrilla type stuff that follows? Some people advocate simply laying waste to our enemies country, bomb it to smithereens and tough luck for the innocents. That has it’s own problems. But, so does taking an isolationist stance and letting the world take care of itself.

    I don’t know anymore. I almost long for the days of the USSR when the bad guys were easy to see and we were both scared of starting something terrible. I think it’s time to end the mid-east occupations, we can’t afford it.

    As far as our guys posing for pictures, the PTSD, etc. we had that before. We just didn’t see the pictures posted on Facebook and PTSD was dealt with differently. WW2 wasn’t a nice clean John Wayne movie and our guys did things that would be “wrong” today. They were just smart enough not to talk about it, or maybe we accepted it and simply ignored it.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  4. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    War for oil, yet again. Until we wrestle control of our government from the oligarchs, nothing will change.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  5. Paul says:

    If you can soften up Gaddafi’s forces rebels might have a chance. Seems worth a try.

    But it is extremely risky. This is a rag tag bunch, they seem to shoot their guns in the air more than at the enemy.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  6. JDM says:

    ICisG:”Until we wrestle control of our government from the oligarchs, nothing will change.”

    I would change oligarchs to enviornmentalists. We have plenty of oil on our own property. The oligarchs aren’t able to prevail over the environmentalists, so it seems they are the more influential group.

    If Obama thinks he can persuade Europe to take the lead, he made regret having dissed the Queen of England with the ipod and the returning of Mr. Churchill’s bust.

    That’s the downfall of having a president-in-training.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 4 Thumb down 13

  7. myown says:

    I am concerned about what appears to be growing acceptance of a permanent culture of war. We already have two wars going on eight years, which we have been borrowing money to pay for, and now jump right into bombing another country. How quickly we forget about the lessons of unintended consequences and the need for a well defined mission and exit strategy. Once again the major benefactors of all these interventions are the large military equipment corporations and contractors. The result is more middle class tax dollars being redistributed to corporate CEOs and wealthy corporate stockowners while social programs and education funding are cut.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 7 Thumb down 0

  8. Walker says:

    JDM – “We have plenty of oil on our own property.”

    Yeah, right, and hydrofracking leaves the groundwater pure and drinkable.

    And when have we ever had a President who wasn’t “in training”?

    Your Fox News talking points are showing.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 15 Thumb down 5

  9. Mayflower says:

    We have, and cherish, a system in which civilians make the decisions and the military enacts those decisions. We’re all pretty sure that this is the best system. But the down-side is that the civilian “deciders” are politicians, subject to a bundle of morally ambiguous influences, some humanitarian, some venal.

    Instead of an informed discussion about international interests, we immediately revert to domestic political debate, trying to fix blame on whichever influences we politically oppose — oligarchs, environmentalists, contractors, corporate thugs, etc.

    I tend more to Bret’s conclusion; “I don’t know anymore.”

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 4 Thumb down 0

  10. JDM says:

    Walker – here is a quote from IBD (

    Obama wants to develop Brazilian offshore oil to help the Brazilian economy create jobs for Brazilian workers while Americans are left unemployed in the face of skyrocketing energy prices by an administration that despises fossil fuels as a threat to the environment and wants to increase our dependency on foreign oil.

    And you are sounding a little alarmist with your hydrofracking talking points from CNN. or is it NPR?

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 3 Thumb down 10

  11. Paul says:

    Walker if you don’t want to frack then drill in Alaska. There you get so far away from folks drinking water that it shouldn’t be an issue. JDM’s point (in part) is that if we have to buy other people’s oil we have to be prepared to pay the price in more ways than one.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  12. newt says:

    There is, in fact, an excellent precedent for this, Bush I’s intervention in Northern Iraq/Kurdistan in ’91. Substitute” Libyans” and “Qadaffi” for “Kurds” and “Saddam Hussein” , below

    The Kurds rose up against the hated Saddam at the end of the 1st Gulf War, and had initial success.

    Saddam struck back viciously, killing hundreds, and threatening to kill many thousands.

    Bush I intervened with a no-fly zone, and, because the Kurds had a fairly effective militia, Saddam retreated, Kurdistan became peaceful and effectively independent. And, while despised nearly everywhere else, the U.S. is respected and admired in Kurdistan even after the Bush II Iraq fiasco.

    While nothing is guaranteed, the recipe of an organized resistance on the ground and a no-fly zone in the air, can lead to an autonomous and acceptable alternative to dictatorships. And no, this formula did not work in the Shi’a south of Iraq. Nothing works everywhere, but it did work somewhere.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 1

  13. Brian says:

    Too many liberals are under the delusion that so long as a war of choice can contrive some “good intentions,” then it will be hunky dory. Or maybe it’s ok if a war of choice’s author has a Nobel Peace Prize on his resume.

    There was no anti-war movement in this country in the last decade; it was merely an anti-Bush movement. Kudos to Dennis Kucinich and Ralph Nader for calling for the president’s impeachment, just like they did for the previous one.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 3 Thumb down 5

  14. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:


    And what is the common denominator in your Kurdis/Iraq vs. Libyan example? Crude oil, of course….The Kurds have it, and so do the Libyans. And Darfur, Sudan, the Congo, etc. have little to none of it which is why we did very little to anything to stop the thousands upon thousands who died and are still dying in those “civil wars.”

    And regarding our own oil reserves, much of it is already under control of the huge multi national oil conglomerates. They sit on it as they know it is easily available in the future when it will be worth far more than what it is now, especially as we get closer to peak oil. When you have a gov’t that not only subsidies your foreign drilling operations, and gives you a very large tax break on profits generated overseas, and utilizes its military to secure it, it makes little sense to pump it out of the ground here. It’s market manipulation and tax evasion all at the same time. Business 101, friends. I will reference the very fine book “Tales of an Economic Hitman” for those who wish to learn more.

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 6 Thumb down 0

  15. MrSandwich says:

    Wasn’t Churchhills bust replaced by Lincolns? I didn’t know the GOP admired Europe so much. And the Churchill bust wasn’t “returned” its in another room in the whitehouse. Sorry, couldn’t resist.
    BTW – war is bad.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  16. If Clapton is God, Warren Haynes is Jesus says:

    I would add that this latest escapade has no declaration of war by the Congress. Didn’t I read something about Congress being required to at least rubber stamp these kinds of things somewhere in our Constitution? Or did I miss such a vote while Congress was distracting everyone with their latest off Broadway production of “How to pretend you’re attacking the deficit when you’re really screwing the Middle Class?” Seems to me going to war without the consent of Congress is a behavior more consistent with that of a dictator than a president. A bit ironic, no?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  17. newt says:

    Oil is a factor, of course.
    So is genuine humanitarian concern, desire to support genuine liberal reform in the region, dislike of Qadaffi, the desire not to appear to be a “helpless giant”, etc.
    In major geopolitical decisions, single factor analysis is usually wrong.

    And Sudan has a lot of oil, Darfur has a some of it, I believe.
    Congo has diamonds and minerals that are extremely valuable. Too far away, to messed up, too hard to manage an intervention, if even feasible

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    there is never a declaration of war anymore, not since WWII

    On the bright side, Americans are going to learn about a whole new country.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  19. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Funny that a couple of days ago I heard Conservatives angry that we weren’t supporting a freedom movement against Qaddafi, and now I’m hearing them saying that it is costing us too much and we already have military action going on elsewhere.

    Rewind to 2002. Afghanistan, Iraq, war protests…

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  20. JDM says:


    “a couple of days ago I heard Conservatives angry”

    Actually, it was a couple of weeks, and unless the point is missed – that was our moment of opportunity.

    President “can’t-make-a-decision-on-what-to-do” blew the opportunity.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 1 Thumb down 8

  21. JDM says:

    To use Hillary’s words:

    Fed up with a president “who can’t make his mind up” as Libyan rebels are on the brink of defeat, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is looking to the exits.

    “Obviously, she’s not happy with dealing with a president who can’t decide if today is Tuesday or Wednesday, who can’t make his mind up,” a Clinton insider told The Daily. “She’s exhausted, tired.” March 17,2011

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 5

  22. Brian says:

    “President “can’t-make-a-decision-on-what-to-do” blew the opportunity.”

    He should’ve made the same choice he made in Egypt and Tunisia: stay out of the way of revolutions and let the indigenous people take control of their own destiny without foreign meddling (thus preventing another reason for anti-Americanism). Staying out of the way of the Egyptian and Tunisian revolutions was one of the very few major foreign policy choices we’ve made in the last half century we actually got right. It’s sad he caved to the “let’s do something just for the sake of allowing us to say we did something even if it makes things worse” crowd… a crowd which comprises both liberals and conservatives, by the way.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 2

  23. Brian says:

    Knuckle: there were no anti-war protests in 2002. They were anti-Bush protests. If there were a serious anti-war movement in America, it would also be protesting Obama’s escalation in Afghanistan and his attack against Libya. Or maybe a Nobel Peace Prize gives you carte blanche in waging war.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 1

  24. michael coffey says:

    I think Obama has taken the absolutely right approach. It is an extraordinary opportunity for the United States to express its commitment to democracy in a region of obvious strategic and economic importance to us. To consult with congress would have triggered a horror-show of grandstanding and would have given the distinct impression that America was leading the way here–disastrous impression to give. For Obama to have Britain and France appearing to lead the charge was a deft stroke. Nothing unilateral, for a relief; no, “you are with us or against the terrorists” bullcrap a la Bush. No “coalition of the winning.” Yes, the decision was delayed–but why? because there was a chance the rebels in Libya would prevail, as in Egypt; at the moment that appeared untenable, the intevention, what Ross Douthat in the Times called “a Liberal intervention,” occurred. The Obama team is far outhinking everybody on this issue, it is there game to play, with all the stakes, and they are doing it well, in my view. Unless all the western military brought to bear here cannot win the day, in which case i say to hell with the defense budget. International will should be able to be imposed here; if not—then we’ve learned our final lesson. But that’s not clear yet.

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 6 Thumb down 4

  25. Mervel says:

    The danger as Brian points out is that this is now a Western mission and we play right into the hands of both the dictators and the extremists. In the future I think the key is to stop supporting these thugs who run a good portion of the Middle East and Africa. I find it ironic all of these “experts” on t.v. who interviewed and palled around with Gadaffi. In fact the guy was becoming kind of popular and of course the whole time he was just a murderer and a dictator to the people.

    We have no vested interest in Libya, the French however do, Libya is close to France right on the border actually. Hopefully this is truly a French operation with the US providing some support. That can work for the US and that may actually happen.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  26. phahn50 says:

    We have a vested interest in any oil-producing country.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 1

  27. Pete Klein says:

    One of the problems in this blog is how it is constantly being said that we are at war on two fronts and shouldn’t take on a third.
    Actually, we aren’t really at war anywhere. Maybe I’m just of the old school where war is an all or nothing thing. You kill until someone surrenders or there is no one left to surrender. You do like we did in our Revolutionary War, the Civil War, World War I and II.
    Some people call us bullies. I’m beginning to wonder just who the really bullies are.
    I saw on the TV today where some little kid was picking on a big kid until the big kid got fed up and slammed the little bully into the ground. I’m also reminded of the Gulliver’s Travel story where the little people tied Gulliver to the ground. Have we become a Gulliver, quaking before the little people, fearful we might step on one of the little people?

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  28. JDM says:

    From “The Hill” blog on a similar topic.

    “I’m so confused. Does Obama decide U.S. foreign policy by the way he gets up on each side of the bed in the morning? One day it’s a humanitarian mission by killing Libyan loyalists to save Libyan rebels. The next day it is regime change, but not really… he only “favors” that outcome. And the next day it’s “installing” a democratic government…i.e., nation building. Oh, I wonder what tomorrow will bring. More Hope and Change?”

    Doesn’t this blogger realize that Obama is so much more brilliant than the rest of us that we can’t attain to the height of his wisdom?

    Hot debate. Like/Dislike Thumb up 1 Thumb down 7

  29. Mervel says:

    I don’t think we do phan. They need us as much if not more than we need them. I don’t think this is about oil in Libya, it is more about pressure to “do something” which is not really a very good reason to go to war.

    The next week will show if Obama knew what he was doing or not.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 1

  30. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Brian, I agree that the anti-war movement during the Bush years was largely anti-Bush but there was a segment who were against the war itself.

    I, for one, was opposed to the war in Iraq because it was based on a series of falsehoods and misinformation, but also because we were involved in Afghanistan and I saw the war in Iraq as a distraction to finishing what should have been done there. And guess what? I was right!

    Popular. Like/Dislike: Thumb up 8 Thumb down 0

  31. Mervel says:

    But really it was very very smart of our President to let Tunisia and Egypt play out on their OWN terms. It became all about them and not, as usual, all about us or the Zionists or the Crusaders etc. For once the people actually got to rise up against the rampant corruption and totalitarianism of the Arab leaders in power now. It is very very bizarre to have this large swath of the world which was once a great center of world culture be so so far behind in Democracy and basic human rights. I wonder how much we have pushed the dictators and kings in Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the Gulf Emerites to embrace true Democracy? I mean they are an educated people who are two to three hundred years behind in this area and we are hanging out with their oppressors.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 2 Thumb down 0

  32. scratchy says:

    Enough is enough. No more Middel East adventures.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  33. john says:

    Well, we finally made it back to, ” … the shores of Tripoli”. War; it’s what we do. I have been paying for undeclared wars fro 44 years now. I can’t even remember all of the places we have projected force in my lifetime. The good-ol’ Military-Industrial Complex.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 3 Thumb down 0

  34. Mervel says:

    Well with 40% of all military spending in the World we have to use it some how.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  35. Fred Goss says:

    It’s fine to say we had the right hands-off policies in Tunisa and Egypt but if Mubarak’s forces had begun shooting the protesters the pressure on the US to “do something” would almost certainly have been irresistable.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 1 Thumb down 0

  36. Mervel says:

    The world needs daddy to take care of their problems and to blame, much like a teenager. We have let this happen but its time for the rest of the world to grow up. It is not a coincidence that while we run around dying and policing the world, other wealthy countries outpace us in infrastructure, health care and education.

    It is not like these other countries just spend a little less on defense, they are spending a LOT less, they can’t actually defend themselves. The reason that we had to help in Libya was not totally political it was simply the practical reality that the other countries don’t have the military resources to even do that. It’s pathetic, if Mexico was in the middle of a civil war with massive implications for the US would we sit around waiting for England to do something? But then again these are the same people that twiddled their thumbs while Hitler built his army and watched as the Serbs committed a second genocide.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

  37. scratchy says:

    Ralph Nader and Dennis Kucinich suggest that Obama should be impeached for invading Libya without consulting Congress. I think they may be right.

    Like/Dislike this comment: Thumb up 0 Thumb down 0

Comments are closed.